Plein Air Primer

Painting en plein air—that is, outdoors, on location—is a delightful way to sharpen your painting skills, enjoy the outdoors, and hang out with friends. Just as working from a live model improves your drawing skills, so painting on location helps you strengthen your compositions and to see both values and colors more clearly. These benefits accrue regardless of whether you ever paint landscapes in the studio and cannot be entirely replaced by working from either models or still-life setups. For landscape painters, of course, painting from life will lend authenticity to your work regardless of how skilled you otherwise may be.

Yes, it’s true: painting outdoors on location is challenging, but in that challenge lies its value to all painters. Nature offers far more information in any given scene than you can possibly include in a painting. That means you have to learn how to pick and choose and to simplify the complexity before you. That’s a skill you will find useful regardless of the type of work you do.

Shifting sunlight presents another useful challenge. Because the scene before you changes minute by minute, the first step in any plein-air painting, regardless of the medium you choose, should be to quickly capture the pattern of light and shadow. One you have established that pattern, you also have established your basic composition and from there can complete the painting without worrying about the movement of the sun or the interference of passing clouds. Learning to quickly assess the possibilities of a scene and block it in encourages the use of large shapes and simple patterns. This, again, is a skill that translates seamlessly to studio painting.

Many artists avoid plein-air painting because they fear feeling embarrassed in front of their peers or onlookers. They shouldn't worry. Onlookers are almost always amazed and delighted, and your peers share all your challenges and frustrations.

Here are a few useful ways to reduce your fear and frustration when painting outdoors:

  • If you feel overwhelmed, paint small studies of trees, rocks, water, whatever. These studies will train your eye and greatly reduce your frustration. They will also provide a reference library you can use in the studio.
  • Remember that even a disappointing effort can provide inspiration and guidance for later studio work, particularly when combined with reference photos.
  • If you are painting with more experienced plein-air painters, ask them for guidance. Almost without exception they will be glad to share some tips and provide encouragement.
  • Enjoy the camaraderie, which is available even on the most frustrating days.
  • Finally, don't expect a masterpiece. Even the best, most experienced plein-air painters crank out far more second-raters, by their standards, than masterpieces.

Tips and Reminders

The following tips and reminders are recommended practices based on personal experience and the wisdom of fellow plein-air painters. They are intended for those of you who have little or no experience painting on location.

  • Make yourself a checklist of what to take. Then, gather your equipment ahead of time. It is incredibly easy to forget even essentials. Many painters keep a special plein-air kit ready to go at a moment’s notice.
  • Consider using a limited palette. It’s good practice and a lot easier to carry.
  • Aside from essentials, keep equipment to a minimum. Consider a painter’s cart if you are unable to carry everything yourself.
  • Dress in layers to be ready for changes in weather.
  • If you are unable or prefer not to stand while painting, remember to take a folding stool.
  • Take paper towels for both painting and clean-up, and plastic bags for disposing of dirty paper towels both during and after painting.
  • Remember to pack snacks, lunch, and drinking water. Water is especially important for the more remote venues, where it will likely be unavailable.
  • Bring insect repellant, particularly for the mountain venues.
  • Prepare for the sun by carrying a hat, sunscreen, and perhaps an artist’s umbrella.
  • When setting up, choose a spot where both your palette and your canvas or paper are shaded, or use an umbrella to create your own. Whatever you do, avoid painting with the sun directly on your painting and palette, as this will cause you to paint your values darker than they should be. For the same reason, avoid wearing white when you paint.
  • Work small. Unless you are an experienced plein-air painter, don't attempt a painting larger than a half sheet of watercolor paper (15 x 22 inches) or a canvas or panel larger than 12 x 16 inches.

Watercolor Painters

  • Your washes will normally dry much faster outdoors than in the studio. You may need to adjust your studio habits to take this into account.
  • A watercolor block is an excellent choice. It is portable, serves as its own laptop easel, and contains as many sheets as you're likely to need.

Acrylic Painters

  • Your washes will normally dry much faster outdoors than in the studio. You may need to adjust your studio habits to take this into account.
  • Consider using the new slow-drying acrylic formulations for painting outdoors.
  • A wet palette with a cover is ideal. A spray bottle is essential regardless.
  • Panels are recommended. If working on a stretched canvas, you will need something to block light coming through the back of the canvas.

Oil Painters

  • Wet canvas boxes are recommended, though some pochade boxes and easels provide slots for carrying wet canvases. The flat boxes that frames come in also work. Otherwise, prepare to make room in your car for laying the canvas flat and keeping other gear from smearing it.
  • Consider painting without solvents. A couple of containers of artist-grade walnut oil or safflower oil work just as well for cleaning brushes and palette. Solvents are difficult to transport and dispose of. If spilled, they contaminate the environment.
  • Consider using water-soluble oils. Then you will only need water to thin your paint and clean your brushes. Most oil painters, however, prefer traditional oils because water-soluble oils do not have the same handling properties.
  • Panels are recommended. If working on a stretched canvas, you will need something to block light coming through the back of the canvas.

Last Updated on Sunday, 04 September 2011 01:11

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